After rejecting a comprehensive wildland-urban interface building code, the Payson Town Council in 2017 adopted four piecemeal changes designed to make it a little bit harder for embers raining down from a fire to set newly built homes on fire.

The new provisions apply only to new construction and require screens on attic openings and metal strips on low points where rooflines come together. The changes also ban shake shingle roofs.

But the council could have done a whole lot more.

Facing pressure from the community, the council decided that people should be allowed to keep their yards how they want — no matter the danger.

Voluntary approach

The council said it supported a voluntary approach to vegetation management, but would not impose rules that require residents to clear overhanging branches or remove shrubs.

The council also decided not to require either vegetation management or wildland fire code changes for new construction — even though only about a third of the build-out housing stock is currently in place.

What started as a comprehensive overhaul of the fire code several years ago ended slashed, chopped and burned to four minor amendments.

Councilman Fred Carpenter — who headed up the town’s voluntary Firewise committee — was the only councilor to push for a more aggressive code.

“Something has got to be done,” said Carpenter. “I’ve been working on Firewise for the last three years. Something has got to be done. We’re just playing Russian roulette” one fire season at a time.

The fire department several years ago recommended the council adopt a Payson-adapted version of the international wildland-urban interface (WUI) building code, which studies show substantially reduces the chance the close approach of a wildfire will set much of the town on fire.

The previous town council rejected the fire department modified version of the WUI code. The newly elected council asked a volunteer committee to recommend changes. The committee recommended provisions to convince homeowners to clear brush and overhanging trees, but whittled the building code changes.

The council rejected the recommendations on vegetation changes.

Numerous studies have demonstrated the value of WUI building codes as well as Firewise brush clearing in preventing wildfires from causing widespread destruction in forested communities like Payson.

One study focused on the 2007 Witch Creek Fire in Southern California, according to findings by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, published on the website Science Daily.

The 200,000-acre fire killed two people, injured 39 firefighters, consumed 1,600 structures, and inflicted $1.8 billion in damage. The research focused on 274 homes near Rancho Bernardo north of San Diego. The fire destroyed 74 homes and damaged another 16 in that subdivision. The researchers used a measurement of fire risk to determine if the WUI standards proved accurate in predicting which homes would burn.

Research backs WUI code

The researchers found that structures that ranked high on the WUI Hazard Scale suffered far more damage. Moreover, firefighters had twice as great a chance of saving structures with a low risk assessment rating as those without.

This U.S. Forest Service photograph shows a Navajo Hotshot setting a backfire
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Studies after the Yarnell Hill Fire that killed 19 firefighters in 2013 came to a similar conclusion. A study of satellite images found that most of the homes destroyed in Yarnell hadn’t cleared the brush from around their homes.

The unincorporated community didn’t have a WUI building code and hadn’t even spent a grant to clear trees and brush from around the community. The 19 firefighters died trying to get through brush that hadn’t burned in 50 years so they could reach the outskirts of the community and protect it from the wildfire.

The fire destroyed half the buildings in town, including most of those that hadn’t cleared a defensible space.

Payson Fire Chief David Staub strongly recommended adopting more comprehensive changes to the fire code, including modifications to the building code plus a requirement to clear dangerous clumps of brush and trees up against a house. He said three years of effort to convince people to thin their lots on a voluntary basis have proved largely unsuccessful.

“The fire department has been educating the community for more than 20 years. The idea that education has not been tried is a fallacy. Education costs money and that requires budgetary consideration,” said Staub.

Payson Fire Chief David Staub tried in vain to convince the town to adopt a modified WUI code. Photo Alexis Bechman
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Gave up on comprehensive code

The fire department had already given up on the kind of comprehensive building code revisions adopted in places like Prescott and Flagstaff after fatal wildfires in those communities. But even the handful of remaining changes in the building code and the new restrictions on vegetation proved too much for the council majority.

Mike Fischer, who retired to Payson after a 30-year career in fire management, said, “Take a look at Yarnell where the fire ran through. You want to talk about saving the green of the town. Let’s just have the fire run through it — and it’s all black. There have been some legitimate concerns about private property rights; but what about my rights to protect my property?”

Generally, the council majority agreed with a succession of speakers who blasted the proposed tree and brush clearing provisions as unconstitutional, burdensome and likely to pit neighbor against neighbor — since enforcement would be complaint-driven. The town gets about 200 complaints a year now from neighbors worried thickets next door endanger their property — but the current code gives the town little recourse.

“Safety is a big issue. But personal property rights are far more important to me,” said Councilor Rick Croy.

Councilor Janell Sterner said she’d rather the town try to educate people about the need to clear their properties — so long as that doesn’t reduce the green, leafy feeling in the town.

‘It’s not going to be as green’

“Are we going to take that green away?” she said, referring to an aerial image of the town on the council chamber walls. “I love Payson — I just think at some point the aesthetic will change. I came up here from concrete to having vegetation. You hear the wind go through it. I’m just looking at that picture, it’s not going to be as green if we adopt this code.”

Staub has said that proposed revisions would reduce the chances embers would set a fire in pine needles that accumulated on rooftops.

Repeated studies have shown that such codes can prevent widespread devastation when embers rain down on a forested community from a fire front as much as a mile away.

The changes in the building code would apply only to new construction. Payson’s population is now about 16,000 and the build-out population is a projected 40,000 — which means two-thirds of the housing stock in Payson hasn’t yet been built.

However, council members said the overhaul was too “draconian” or that it would take too long to have an effect.

Chief Staub pleaded in vain for the changes, calling them a good first step. He said he also moved to Payson to enjoy the cool, green forest.

‘We can save communities’

“I moved here for the very same reason. Nothing in this code says you have to move your tree because it’s next to the house. The other misconception that there’s nothing we can do about wildfire. That’s absolutely false. We go out and cut a big swatch in the forest and the fire drops to the ground — we can save communities.

“The Wallow Fire is a very well researched example. Go to Alpine and Nutrioso: They’re not barren of trees. But the Firewising efforts of those folks allowed those communities to remain intact. I will tell you, we don’t have enough firefighters to fight wildfire — but to say there’s nothing we can do is absolutely not true.”

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Spark by Pia Wyer

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